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Language & Symbols

Human Characteristics: Language & Symbols

Some non-human primates can communicate using symbols. So how are humans different? Watch this video to find out. NOTE: This video has sound.


Early human creating cave art. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studio.


Humans Express Themselves

From pigments to printing presses, symbols changed the way humans lived and provided new ways to cope with an unpredictable world.

Modern humans used color, words, and sound to produce the artifacts you see here. The ability to plan, record information, and communicate helped humans survive as climates fluctuated strongly.

Ultimately, words and symbols led to language and the richness of modern human life.



Communicating with color

By 350,000 years ago

With ocher and manganese, our ancestors marked objects and possibly their own skin. Colors were symbols by which they identified themselves and their group.

Humans may have first used ocher either as an adhesive or a pigment, and later to make artistic drawings and paintings.

Flattened areas on these pieces of pigment are signs of grinding or rubbing, telling us that they were held and used roughly like chunky crayons.



Illustration of an ancient child burial. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studio.

Ancient Burials

By 100,000 years ago

Our ancestors often buried the dead together with beads and other symbolic objects. Burial rituals heightened the group’s memory of the deceased person. These rituals may imply a belief that a person’s identity extends beyond death.


Child burial

24,000 years ago

At Sunghir, Russia, a twelve- to thirteen-year-old boy and a nine- to ten-year-old girl were buried together, head-to-head, flanked by two huge mammoth tusks. Members of their community covered them with red ocher and ornamented them with beaded caps, carved pendants, and more than 10,000 ivory beads.



Expressing identity

Ishango bone (top left), carved reindeer antler with tally marks (top right), and engraved ocher plaque (bottom). Images courtesy of Chip Clark, James Di Loreto, and Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution.

By 100,000 years ago

What do you wear to define who you are?

Our ancestors used jewelry and other personal adornments to reflect their identity. These adornments may have represented membership in a particular group or someone’s age, sex, and social status.



Recording information

By 77,000 years ago

All of these objects have marks that may have been used to count or store information. Researchers are debating exactly what the marks represent.

From simple beginnings like these came our ability to store enormous amounts of information.


Information or decoration?

A close-up look at these objects shows that in all three the markings are clearly organized. This systematic pattern suggests to some researchers that the markings represent information rather than decoration.



Engraved Stone, Berekhat Ram, Golan Heights, Middle East, about 280,000-250,000 years old. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Creating paintings and figurines

By 40,000 years ago

By this time, humans were creating two- and three-dimensional images of the world around them. By 17,000 years ago, they had developed all the major representational techniques including painting, drawing, engraving, sculpture, ceramics, and stenciling. Working on stone, ivory, antler, and occasionally clay, they created imaginative and highly complex works of art.


Do you see a human head and body on the engraved stone to the right? Scientific studies show that humans deepened the natural grooves on this stone and smoothed planes and curves to create an image. It may be one of the earliest representations of a human figure.



 When Did Humans Start Writing?           

By around 8,000 years ago, humans were using symbols to represent words and concepts. True forms of writing developed over the next few thousand years.

Cylinder seals were rolled across wet clay tablets to produce raised designs.

Cuneiform symbols stood for concepts and later for sounds or syllables.



When Did Humans Start Talking?

Scientists are not sure. Spoken language does not fossilize, and there are few clues about when our ancestors began to use complex language to communicate.

However, making and using some of the objects here, which date back 350,000 years, involved complex behaviors that probably required language.



Spoken language became possible when the voice box dropped lower in the throat. Image courtesy of Karen Carr Studio.

Benefits and Costs of Talking



Spoken language is essential to modern human cultures. We use language to communicate in a complex, ever changing world.

As our bodies evolved for speech, the voice box dropped lower in the throat. The area above the vocal chords lengthened, enabling us to make a wide variety of sounds.



When the voice box dropped to make speech possible, it became impossible to swallow and breathe at the same time. Food could get stuck in the larynx and cause choking.

Because human babies do not have a lowered voice box, they can breathe while nursing like other mammal infants.






Page last updated: October 17, 2018